Rookie seasons at the NASCAR Cup level can be extremely difficult, with drivers used to winning frequently at the lower levels struggling to finish inside the top-15 with the increased competition and equipment at the top level of the sport.
It’s been no different for Harrison Burton, who recorded four wins and 25 top-five finishes across his last two NASCAR Xfinity Series seasons. Thus far in his rookie Cup campaign, the Virginia native has one top-five and two top-10s in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford.
“The first part of the year hasn’t gone how we wanted it to,” said Burton, who races in familiar territory Sunday at Richmond Raceway in his native state of Virginia. “There’s no denying that. There are no rose-tinted glasses for that.
“It’s definitely been a letdown for me personally. I wanted to come out and do a really good job and I feel like I made a lot of mistakes early. I’m just trying to get better and better each weekend.
“If I could give it a grade, I wouldn’t give it a good one. I think we’ve got to run better. There have been a lot of missed opportunities on our end. I think of cars that we had that were fast and I made mistakes or just missing opportunities throughout the weekend to get decent finishes.”
While the results might not have met Burton’s lofty expectations, it’s worth noting that he’s just 21-years-old, competing with drivers that have done this for years, and in the brand-new Next Gen car to boot. Early on this season, Burton was on a flight with Team Penske’s Joey Logano, where the duo discussed the difficulties of competing at the highest level at such a young age.
“I was sitting next to Joey and talking about just racing in general and how hard it could be and he’s a guy that has turned into a Cup champion from a guy that had kind of a bad rookie season, I guess,” Burton said. “I don’t really know the stats, but you talk to him and that’s how he talks about it.”
While Logano went to victory lane once during his first full-time Cup season, he recorded just three top-five and seven top-ten finishes and ended the season with an average finishing position of 20th. Logano didn’t win again for the next two years, but since then has visited victory lane in 11 consecutive seasons, racking up 28 victories and the 2018 Cup championship.
“Joey has gotten better through hard times and turned into one of the best to ever do it,” Burton said. “He was talking to me about, ‘Hey, it’s pretty awesome when you think about what are other 21-year-olds doing and how tough are you gonna be from this?’
“It was early in the year that we had that conversation and it’s definitely true. It’s a hard sport emotionally, physically and mentally. It takes everything you’ve got and that doesn’t guarantee success. I’ve thought a lot about what it takes to be a great competitor and trying to implement some things that I do in my day-to-day life and I think it’s been working and showing signs of progress.”
Burton noted he’s a lot more confident since the start of the season in Daytona and his two top-10 finishes this season have come in the last five races, including a career-best third-place result at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course two weeks ago. Now comes Sunday at Richmond, a .75-mile track where Burton has three top-10 finishes in four Xfinity starts and finished 18th in the spring Cup race.
“I’ve led a lot of laps in Xfinity at Richmond and had a win slip away there,” he said. “I really love that racetrack and feel like that place suits me well … and build off that for the race.”
The key for Burton for the remainder of his rookie Cup campaign will be taking what he learned through the first portion of the season and applying that as the series moves into the final third of the season, including the upcoming 10-race Cup playoffs.
“You don’t want to pick yourself apart, but you also need to know what you could have done better,” Burton said. “That’s a balance. I tend to be really hard on myself and want to be the best I can be, so every mistake I make, I kind of wear it on my sleeve.”